Oconee County sheriff candidates James Hale and Jimmy Williamson said they didn’t want to get involved in a dispute between the School Board and the Board of Commissioners and would continue to provide deputies to direct traffic at school entrances if elected and asked to do so.
At the same time, they said that having deputies in the roadway is dangerous and that they are in favor of road infrastructure changes, including roundabouts, that remove the deputies from the school entrances.
The Board of Education has tried–with some success–to block construction of roundabouts at the Malcom Bridge school campuses, which the Board of Commissioners has said they have proposed in part to get deputies out of the roadways.
The School Board had said it wanted to wait until after the election in November, when either Hale or Williamson will be chosen to replace retiring Sheriff Scott Berry, and let the new sheriff, rather than the Board of Commissioners, decide about the assignment of deputies to school entrances.
Hale and Williamson were responding to a question posed by Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, in a candidate form Prochaska organized for the two candidates who meet in the June 9 Republican Primary.
No Democrat has filed for the office, so the June primary will determine who is Oconee County’s next sheriff.
The two candidates are scheduled to appear at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Monday) in another virtual candidate forum organized by the Oconee County Republican Party.
Want To Stay Out Of Dispute
Both Williamson, who was given the chance to respond to Prochaska’s question first, and Hale went to great lengths to say they did not want to pick sides in the dispute between the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners.
That dispute has flared up at recent Board of Education meetings, where Board Member Tim Burgess has been particularly outspoken in criticizing the activities of the Board of Commissioners.
The dispute goes back to the selection of the site of the Dove Creek Elementary School and problems with road construction at that site, but it came into the open most prominently when the Board of Commissioners proposed a series of roundabouts on Malcom Bridge Road, including two in front entrances to Malcom Bridge Middle School.
The Board of Education tried to block that decision by refusing to grant right of way to the county, and the county is now building a roundabout only at the staff and bus entrance, which also serves Malcom Bridge Elementary School.
“We have a different priority,” Board of Education member Wayne Bagley said at last month’s Board meeting, referring to the Board of Commissioner’s desire to remove deputies from the intersections. “Our priority as a Board of Education is the safety of the children.”
At the meeting last week, the Board of Education turned down a request by the Board of Commissioners to meet in three public Town Hall sessions in coming months.
At the Board meeting scheduled to start at 6 p.m. today (Monday), the Board is to vote on a plan the school system initiated to begin charging the county Parks and Recreation Department for use of school athletic facilities. The county has said it will not begin charging the schools for use of its facilities.
As a constitutional officer elected by the citizens, the Sheriff makes assignments of the county’s deputies, Hale and Williamson said.
They also said that the Board of Commissioners provides money to the Sheriff to pay those deputies.
And it is the responsibility of the Board of Commissioners to build roads, they said.
Safety Big Concern
“It’s hard for me to say that I don’t want to look at some design that makes the deputy safer,” Williamson said. “That’s like telling the Commission no, I don’t need $50,000 for bullet proof vests.
“Anything that they are willing to look at or try to make the deputy safe, I want,” Williamson continued. “And I feel as sheriff I owe that to the people that work for me. I owe it to these citizens, because it’s not just like we can replace a deputy immediately.”
“I have to agree with him on that,” Hale said in following Williamson.
“Like he said, any technology or infrastructure that can be designed that can get that deputy out of the roadway, and to make that deputy safe, that’s also wanted,” Hale added.
Both Williamson and Hale mentioned the death of Deputy Sheriff David Gilstrap, who was struck and killed by a vehicle in the early morning of Oct. 8, 2008, while directing traffic in front of Oconee County Primary School on Hog Mountain Road.
Williamson said his wife was at the scene, delivering his daughter to the Elementary School, and witnessed the accident.
Hale said he also was there “when Deputy Gilstrap was killed, and also when Lieutenant George Roberts got hit there at Veterans Park,” referring to another incident involving an offerer directing traffic at Oconee Veterans Park, also on Hog Mountain Road.
“No matter what we do with a deputy there, it’s very dangerous for them to be in those positions,” Hale said.
Support For School Safety
Prochaska said each candidate could take as long as he wanted to answer the questions he posed, and Williamson gave lengthy answers to most of the questions, which ranged from responses to COVID-19 to use of social media by the sheriff.
Discussion of roundabouts came about 20 minutes into the session, which lasted just less than an hour.
“The reality is, I don’t want to get into what the schools do,” Williamson said. “The schools make the decisions for the schools.”
“I’m not abandoning the schools in directing traffic if I get elected sheriff,” Williamson said. “We’re going to work with them to make sure those parents get in and out of the schools safely and efficiently.”
“I do believe though that the sheriff is somebody that is going to have help mediate some of the issues,” Hale said, “because they are asking the sheriff to pull manpower to do those jobs.”
“I think that’s the ultimate goal is for those kids and parents to get in and out of school in a safe manner,” Hale continued. “And I believe that’s the job of the sheriff to make sure that safety is maintained.
Prochaska asked the two candidates about their view of accessibility to the sheriff and about the sheriff’s use of Facebook specifically.
“The number one role of the sheriff is to be the friend of his neighbor,” Hale said. “We have to look after each other. As an elected sheriff, you’re elected to take on that role as the protector of the county so-to-speak.”
“I believe Facebook is a tool that just isn’t going to go away,” Hale said.
“I think probably the Facebook page for any new sheriff coming into office would have to be toned down a great deal especially from what it is now,” Hale continued. “I think we would gear it more towards putting information out to the general public versus the laughing stuff.”
“I totally agree,” Williamson said. “When people don’t know what else to do they are going to reach out to the local law enforcement.”
“The sheriff’s got to be available to everybody,” he continued.
“You’ve got to be really careful with social media,” Williamson said. “You want to keep your community informed,” he continued, “but I do think we need to refrain from talking about cases on there.”
“I do think some of the things they say are funny at times and that brings a human side to the Sheriff’s Office,” Williamson said. “I just think we need to be real careful in how we use humor.”
Hale, in his closing comments, said the choice of candidates “is a very big decision for Oconee County citizens to make.”
“I want to make sure that everyone understands and knows that I have been here for 20 years, in the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office for 20 years, working for Scott Berry. I’ve enjoyed working here. I love this county. Born and raised here.”
“I want to always think that our deputies at the Sheriff’s Office will always keep in mind that we’re bought and paid for by the citizens of Oconee County,” Hale said.
“I want to make sure that we maintain the level of excellence that Sheriff Berry has instilled in the last 28 years of him being the sheriff,’ Hale said.
Williamson said Oconee voters “are the ones making the hiring decision.”
“We should want the best qualifications we can get to do the job,” Williamson said.
“But the reality when looking at who’s going to be the next sheriff,” Williamson continued. “I think the most important thing is the person has the experience to lead. Someone who has been in that top CEO position. Who understands the difficulties and budget, hiring process, all those things.”
“I think, if you look at the credentials, as much as I like James, I think I’m the better candidate for sheriff,” Williamson said.
The video below is of the May 7 candidate forum, held at the offices of The Oconee Enterprise.
Prochaska invited Sarah Bell to attend the session, which was live streamed via Facebook.
Bell recorded the video below.
Candidate self introductions begin at 2:17 in the video.
The candidates were asked how they would respond to COVID-19 at 9:17 in the video.
Prochaska asked the candidates to indicate how they would respond to budget constraints likely to result from COVID at 15:18 in the video.
Discussion of roundabouts at the schools starts at 20:59.
The candidates responded to a question about speeding at 26:20 in the video
They were asked about hiring at 32:24.
Prochaska asked about accessibility of the sheriff and Facebook at 42:30 in the video.